‘Risen’: Biblical semi-epic turns silly at times, grisly at others

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Give the Sony Pictures-backed Affirm Films and “Risen” director and co-writer Kevin Reynolds credit for making a different kind of Biblical semi-epic.

Jesus Christ, called by his Hebrew name of Yeshua in the film, is played (and played quite well) by Cliff Curtis, an actor of New Zealand Maori descent whose dark features more closely resemble what many historians claim Jesus would look like — as opposed to the light-haired, blue-eyed Jesus characters from old movies. (See Jeffrey Hunter, “King of Kings.”)

The disciples, along with the Jewish high priest Caiaphas, are also played by actors who look authentic to the heritage of the characters and the geography of the period.

“Risen” focuses on chapters in the New Testament rarely explored at great length in fictional drama: the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion, from the time Jesus was taken from the cross and entombed, to his resurrection and his appearances before the apostles before his ascension.

Biblical scholars will do an infinitely better job than I of telling you exactly how faithful “Risen” is to the Scriptures. I do know that on more than a few occasions, what we see onscreen is an almost literal translation of events as described in the Bible and told in churches.

Alas, “Risen” is told mostly from the point of view of Clavius (a bulked-up Joseph Fiennes, covered with sweat and blood most of the movie, like a light-heavyweight version of Russell Crowe in “Gladiator”), an original character with no Biblical origins I can unearth.

Clavius is a Roman military tribune — a mighty warrior and the right hand of Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), who is already scheming and plotting his next political moves just hours after he ordered the execution of Jesus Christ.

When the body of Jesus disappears from the tomb, Pilate assigns Clavius to the case, as if we’re in a 33 A.D. edition of “Law and Order.” Clavius questions the bumbling idiot guards who got drunk and fell asleep; bursts into a house of ill repute and nabs Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto), who may hold the key to the case, and questions the disciple Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan), who according to this movie was basically a New Testament version of Spicoli — all white teeth and surfer hair and wide-eyed giggling.

As Bart tells Clavius, until recently it was just him and a handful of other hardcore followers of Jesus — but now that Christ has risen, and I quote, “This changes everything!”

This isn’t the only time “Risen” produces unintentional laughs. After Jesus appears to the disciples and then suddenly vanishes, Simon Peter is asked what happened to Jesus.

“How should I know!” he bellows.

Other times, “Risen” is downright grisly. With the body of Jesus missing, Clavius orders an inspection of all recently buried Jewish men — and we get a number of gruesome close-ups of decomposing corpses, while Clavius’ men gag and ward off swarms of flies. (Even with scenes of Roman soldiers breaking the legs of crucified men; blood spilled on the battlefield; and dozens of men suffering violent deaths, “Risen” still gets a PG-13 rating. At least the MPAA is consistent in its ridiculous embrace of violence over sex and language.)

Fiennes sticks with the brooding, stoic performance, even when Clavius is undergoing some major changes. It’s not his best work. Peter Firth has a fine time playing the odious Pilate, who cares only about saving his own hide. Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the “Potter” movies) does fine work as Lucious, the loyal apprentice to Clavius.

In the last act, “Risen” turns into a chase movie, with the Roman soldiers in hot pursuit of Clavius and the disciples.  Do we really need to see Simon Peter et al. covering their tracks and finding a secret passageway to avoid the posse, as if they’re in a mediocre Western?

[s3r star=2/4]

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Kevin Reynolds and written by Reynolds and Paul Aiello. Running time: 108 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for biblical violence including some disturbing images). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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